#20 North Dakota FCS Football 2016 Preview

North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Overall Rank: #20
#4 Big Sky
North Dakota made huge strides last season, going 7-4 overall and 5-3 in Big Sky play. The Fighting Hawks were basically out of the playoff picture in mid-October, but the team rallied late and won their last three games, including victories over Montana State and Cal Poly. Back in their season opener, UND knocked off Wyoming and that got this team off to a great start, but three losses in a row during October to Idaho State, Weber State and Montana was too much to overcome. Regardless of that difficult stretch, North Dakota took a big step last season and will hope to make the playoffs this time around.
2015 Record: 7-4, 5-3
2015 Postseason: None
Coach: Bubba Schweigert (34-32 at North Dakota, 34-32 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Paul Rudolph
Defensive Coordinator: Eric Schmidt
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: John Santiago, RB, 1,459 yards
Passing: Keaton Studsrud, QB, 1,262 yards
Receiving: Luke Stanley, WR, 312 yards
Tackles: Cole Reyes, DB, 71
Sacks: Jake Disterhaupt, LB, 4.0
Interceptions: Deion Harris, DB, 2
Other Key Returnees: RB Brady Oliveira, WR Josh Seibel, WR Clive Georges, LB Connor O’Brien, LB Jawon Johnson, LB Brian Labat, DL Brandon Dranka
Key Losses: FB Zach Adler, OL Brandon Anderson, LB Will Ratelle, DB William James, P Mitch Meindel
Running back John Santiago had a superb freshman campaign and rushed for 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns. He can handle the workload despite his 5-9, 170 pound frame. Santiago is the catalyst of the offense, but he may need some more help this year if UND is going to reach the postseason. On the other side of the ball, the Fighting Hawks boasted one of the best rush defenses in the country in 2015. The unit allowed a mere 100.3 yards per game on the ground. And with nine starters back on defense, they should be just as good. Will Ratelle is gone after tallying a team high 110 tackles, but linebackers Jake Disterhaupt, Connor O’Brien, Jawon Johnson and Brian Labat are back to pick up the slack. This is a team that gets into the backfield quite a bit and all those linebackers can get a sack or two or at least tackle a ball carrier in the backfield. The front line is led by Brandon Dranka, who recorded 3.0 sacks last season.
It is the pass defense that could be a problem though. Deion Harris is a great cornerback and safety Cole Reyes is the leader of the secondary, but the rest of the unit needs to step up and be more consistent. North Dakota will get burnt every once in a while since they want to blitz from a lot of different places, but the secondary needs to limit those big plays. Making a few more big plays of their own would not hurt either. The team intercepted just six passes last season. The good news is quarterback Keaton Studsrud will not throw many interceptions so it will all even out. In fact last season Studsrud threw just three picks compared to a dozen touchdowns. The passing game does need to find a few targets though. Luke Stanley is back after catching 26 passes for a team high 312 yards and five touchdowns. Josh Seibel and Zach Adler are also returning, but the group lacks a big time playmaker. The addition of Texas State transfer Demun Mercer could help. Ranking 109th in the FCS, especially in a conference like the Big Sky, is not going to be enough.
The Bottom Line:
The schedule is what could get North Dakota into the playoffs. After trips to Stony Brook and Bowling Green, North Dakota hosts South Dakota in their final non-conference game. That is not an easy group of games, but the Fighting Hawks should win at least one of them, if not two. Amazingly, UND misses Eastern Washington, Montana and Portland State. That leaves Weber State and Northern Arizona as, presumably, the toughest conference games on the schedule. And both of those games are at home and very late in the season. This team will almost certainly need to win at least one of those games to reach the playoffs, but unlike last year, North Dakota should head into the end of the season with their playoff hopes still alive.
Projected Postseason: FCS Playoffs
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 238.6 (12th in nation, 3rd in conference)
Passing Offense: 140.9 (109, 12)
Total Offense: 379.5 (62, 10)
Scoring Offense: 28.1 (53, 9)
Rushing Defense: 100.3 (6, 1)
Pass Defense: 259.6 (114, 9)
Total Defense: 359.9 (41, 2)
Scoring Defense: 25.7 (62, 5)
Turnover Margin: -0.09 (68, 5)
Sacks: 2.64 (21, 2)
Sacks Allowed: 1.91 (58, 6)
Madness 2016 Recruit Rankings:
#127 Evan Holm
#174 Bennett Helgren